Any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must begin with the recognition of the fact that the Palestinians have been the victims of a century of machinations that have brought them to where they are today. I say this because too many of Washington’s opinion shapers, both on the right and left, blame the Palestinians for their fate. Such criticism is both indecent and ahistorical since it is as unjustified to fault the Palestinians as it would be to fault Black Americans for poverty or police brutality. It is fundamentally wrong to blame the victims of injustice or to hold them solely responsible for righting historical wrongs.
As I have often noted, the litany of betrayals by the West is many – from the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot dismemberment of the Arab East, and the imposed British Mandate over Palestine, to the Nakba, the occupation and systematic Israeli conquest and colonization of the West Bank, and the de-development, strangulation, and political deformity of Gaza. All have either been done by Western powers or by Israel, with the acquiescence or overt support of these same Western countries.
Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the United States has been a major player in the oppression of the Palestinian people. For decades now, American policy has coddled Israel while blaming the Palestinians for their plight. In doing so they have ignored two basic asymmetries that have defined the conflict.
First is the asymmetry of power: Israel has near-complete control over every aspect of Palestinian life, while the Palestinians are largely powerless, they are denied freedom of movement, control over their properties, land, and water, the ability to freely engage in commerce, and basic human rights.
As a result of Israel’s one-sided imposed interpretation of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority has become a dependency requiring international aid for support and, because its ability to grow its economy has been deliberately impeded by the Israelis, Palestinians are forced to depend for their sustenance either on public service employment or on low-paying jobs in Israel or in the settlements.
The second asymmetry is the one that has long characterized US policy: Israel gets US love while Palestinians get US pressure. Israel is the major recipient of American largess – in the form of massive aid and unquestioning political support. Meanwhile, even when Palestinians received US aid, it was always conditioned. And Palestinians are continually pressured by the US to recognize Israel as a Jewish State and make concessions to increase Israel’s feeling of security.
What has been remarkable is the ability of the Israelis to turn this reality upside down – portraying themselves as the perpetual victims who are forced to make painful concessions, while depicting the Palestinians as the obstinate threat who take and never give.
In recent weeks, this “blame the Palestinians game” was played by both a Trump Administration official and an advisor to the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. The Trump official upbraided the Palestinians for not entering negotiations based on their “Deal of the Century.” The Democrat took a longer view of Palestinian “rejectionism,” dredging up the falsehood that “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” – specifically referring to their rejection of earlier “deals” offered by former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.
An examination of both criticisms demonstrates that neither holds water.
While an investor in Israeli settlements, US Ambassador Friedman, is working with his Israeli counterparts to draw up maps determining which Palestinians lands Israel can annex, the Palestinians are chided for refusing to enter these negotiations. This is akin to asking a patient about to undergo surgery for an unwanted amputation to hold the scalpel for the surgeon.
The same is true for the myth, accepted by some Democrats, chiding Palestinians for refusing to accept past “great offers” from Israel, without understanding what those offers actually were. At Camp David, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s so-called “best deal ever” was no such thing. He, too, insisted on keeping the Jordan Valley, and the Israeli settlements, including those in “East Jerusalem.” Nevertheless, after Camp David, Palestinians and Israelis continued negotiations until Barak called them off in order to prepare for elections, which he lost. Similarly, Prime Minister Olmert’s “offer” was never worth considering, because he made it during his final days in office and facing a jail term, so he had no ability to deliver whatever he was promising.
So it’s insulting to the Palestinians and to history to continue the canard that “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” And it’s unbecoming for any US official in a leadership role to make such a patently false claim.
The bottom line is the US stance that all the Palestinians need to do is negotiate with the Israelis, without preconditions, is either dangerously naïve or disingenuous. There already are preconditions. Israel has been gobbling up the West Bank and creating “irreversible realities” for decades. They have never accepted Palestinian property rights, human rights, or their rights as a sovereign people to self-determination.
To require the party with no cards in their hands to play with the party holding all the cards is asking the Palestinians to accept whatever the Israelis are willing to give them. This is a non-starter and the cause of the disastrous situation in which we now find ourselves.
Instead of blaming the victims, a resolution to this conflict can only be found by holding the Israelis accountable for their behavior and by balancing the equation through backing up the Palestinians. It means reversing the above-noted asymmetry – pressure for the Israelis and support for the Palestinians and recognition of their rights. Because the US is incapable of playing this role, it falls to Europe and the Arab states to step up. Europe can use the threat of sanctions should Israel continue its illegal behavior. For their part, the Arabs can put flesh on the bones of the Arab Peace Initiative by making it clear to the Israeli public the benefits that might accrue to them, only if their government’s policy dramatically changes by recognizing the Palestinian peoples political and human rights.